Thursday, October 9, 2008
He stood on a mountaintop. He felt Glen Greene go. Slipping free into the great tomorrow that, for now, was beyond the comprehension of Glen's addled senses. And he had felt the others, each one going in accordance with the fate he had forseen in their eyes, not through any kind of precognitive ability, but through his capacity to read the minds of men. Each of his fellow heroes had in ways they would never have been able to comprehend, chosen their fates, and were, for all of their lives, driving towards them. A few of them had changed direction somewhere along the way, but even they had been on their path for years.
Once he had fought beside them. They were all young and strong, so full of hope, and so naive. Even he understood less in those days. Though he could read minds almost from birth, as all of his people could. He did not fully understand the way that humans thought yet. How their ideas were a jumbled and often conflicted mass of words and sounds, cinematic images, and intense emotions. Maybe it was because they communicated mostly with their minds but Andromedan thoughts were much more eloquently formed, and cohesively transferred. Human thoughts were often rude and uncultured, bordering on savage. But then, to be fair, like a wild animal, human minds had never been called upon to communicate ideas through thought, never been asked to sit down with others and play nice. What, after all does a man raised in the wild know of table manners? In those days it was easier not to read the minds of humans, even though many of them shouted their thoughts at the top of their lungs, so to speak. He would hear them, but the meaning was oftentimes lost.
But now they were almost all of them as unto open books. And all of their deepest most dreadful secrets, which mostly did not seem so dreadful after all, were as plain as neon signs dangling over their heads. He had actually known many of his comrades, quite literally better than they knew themselves. But they were gone now, having entered a state that was now closer to his own. But they had moved through a space more complex than time, and he was not sure if even he could reach them now. It was a moot question, because he would not try. They were on a new journey and he did not wish, just as they were departing for new world's, to give them an anchor into their old one.
So he bowed his head, and there was silence. Andromedans are able to block out the voices of an entire planet, an entire galaxy in the case of some masters whose mental abilities could reach that far. But the voices that they always heard, where those of their family. It was a purely unconscious thing. A thing that happened of its own volition, as a subconscious manifestation of his level of comfort, and intimacy with them. It had happened with these heroes. They had become his surrogate family in every way, even that most intimate measure of the Andromedan psyche.
But all of them were gone now, except for Ray. And he had always had a strange and unexplained ability to shut the Andromedan out. His psyche was locked up tight as a drum. It was like a four walled room with no windows and no doors, and every wall was a mirror that only reflected that single heartbreaking moment when both of his parents were killed right before his eyes, playing over and over and over again. So the voices were all gone now. And The Andromedan avenger was surrounded by the vacuum of that silence. He felt, utterly alone. And he wondered, not for the first time, if it was time for him to spread his essence across the earth, and join his friends who had passed into the afterlife. Maybe it was time for him to join the great collective consciousness that the humans were just beginning to comprehend.
He sat on the mountaintop, and began to enter a state of deep relaxation that was semi analogous, to human meditation. He would need time to ponder this question. Even though Andromedans, unlike humans, were able to choose their time to enter their next phase of existence, their death, was just as permanent as the human variety, and was a decision not to be taken lightly.
He stood on a mountaintop, pondering the fleeting nature, the precious fragility of human existence. He stood and he contemplated the ending of his existence, or rather a new beginning. He was old and tired and lonely, and oblivion called, but beyond that there was another thing calling, it was great and golden and its voice was vibrant and lustrous with the gleam of destiny.
The Andromedan slowly opened his eyes. He knew now, what he must do.
Monday, October 6, 2008
"Would you like orange juice, or apple?" the nurse said. And she opened up that plastic smile. For the first week it had fooled him and he mistook her professional courtesy for actual kindness. After that he realized that she smiled in exactly the same way every single time, and that the smile never once touched her eyes.
"Just water," he said, unconcerned. After his realization about her, she was not kind, and not beautiful, and didn't remind him of the daughter he never had. Like the walls and the floors and lunch and arts and crafts time she was simply there. And one day, if he lived long enough, she would not be there any longer, like the one before her, what was her name? Cynthia, Sylvia? The one that actually had been kind. She would be gone, and there would be another in her stead. And that was how time was measured in this place; by death, and by the changing of the staff.
There was talk of a woman named Catherine Babcock. Like a legend, no one could say whether she ever existed or not. Only one resident was old enough to remember her. Bill Ralston. And his mind was so plagued by dementia that no one knew for sure whether his word could be trusted on the subject. But he said that she would sneak ice cream to all the residents at all hours of the day, and real flavors too, not the standard chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Real flavors, like they scooped out of the large brown barrels with the silvery rims at the ice cream parlor. Peppermint and cookies and cream, pistachio, and fudge ripple. Once, Bill said, she had even taken a bunch of them out to dinner. Snuck them right out of the place altogether.
"I wish Cathy was still here," Bill would say. Or, "Cathy was the best thing that ever happened to this place," wistfully. And when he was in one of his states, he would scream for her, and demand to be allowed to talk to her, shouting and throwing everything he could get his hands on until he had to be sedated, and then the whole wing would breathe a sigh of relief for the blessed silence. Cathy was supposedly there for years. Another rarity. Mostly the good ones never stayed too long; a couple years at the most. Like Sylvia, or was it Sarah? She had only lasted a year and a half. And maybe that was how the whole thing worked. Maybe, a woman who cracked fake smiles, and did as little as she had to, could go on forever. But maybe someone who really gave, like Cynthia, maybe she gave what she could till it was all used up, and then maybe she had no choice but to move on.
He looked out the window. On any given day there would be children playing, or lovers walking hand in hand through the parks. He’d seen family picnics, and people walking dogs that ran and leapt in their leashes, barking excitedly, and he’d watched with a sort of wide-eyed wonder. It was so hard to believe, but every one of those stages had passed him by, in the blink of an eye it seemed. Once he had even witnessed a mugging. It was a terrifying, brutal affair, and almost, he reached for his golden belt to stop it. It was wrapped in cloth and tucked away inside a locked box that he kept hidden in a drawer in his dresser. But he knew that if he leapt out his window it would set off an alarm, and then they would know his identity. There were still friends of the hero he'd once been, walking the streets, and more importantly there were still enemies.
For a moment he'd watched the thing happen in shock. Then he picked up the phone and told the office to call 911. They had to send someone over to his room to verify that the mugging was actually happening, then that person dialed 911 which was blocked on all the residents’ phones because of too many false alarms in the past. Of course, by the time the police arrived the whole thing was over. The mugger was never caught, and Glen had never felt so powerless and emasculated in his entire life.
But most of the time looking out the window was a simple pleasure. And a way to pass the time as the days grew dimmer. But lately he had seen a shadow passing. Sometimes swiftly, and sometimes slowly, lingering a little. And he wondered if that was how the thing started. Or to put it more accurately, he wondered if that was how the thing ended.
Sometimes he dreamed of the old days. And that was the only time he remembered those days clearly. He would savor the moments, because he was young, but in some recess of his mind, he remembered that he had grown old. But in the dream he was young again, and his muscles were lithe and strong, and his body was quick and ready, and his mind was sharp and alert. And something seemed strange about being young again, but in the way of dreams he accepted it. All that mattered was the energy, the strength that was coursing through him and he would leap from the top of a building, never once considering that the power of the belt would fail him, never once dreaming that the body that wore the belt would, one day, fail him. And he was soaring through the skies that knew no bounds and free of the bonds of gravity, and the petty concerns of men. And sometimes he would battle his enemies or relive the day that his best friend was crushed by a chunk of building that his battle with the gray guardsman had dislodged. Or he would find himself helpless and bound, battling the rigors of torture at the hands of his most hated enemies, and when he awoke every one of those fates seemed preferable to this one, waiting to die in this place... Just then the shadow came by again and he felt old and tired, scared and alone. Once he had been one of earth's mightiest heroes, now he was a castoff, a throw away. The shadow lingered now, longer than it ever had before. It was a cold and silent thing, but it was not cruel or unkind. It knelt, and it whispered in his ear. He nodded, his gray, tired, eyes that once were cadmium blue, seeing the way of things.
He went to the drawer and pulled out the chest. He reached into his shirt and took out the key. With shaking hands, he pushed the key into the lock and turned it. The lock gave a satisfying click and the chest opened. Glen stood there for a moment, looking at the belt, all golden in the wan light of his room. He touched the belt, like a father touches the face of a child he hasn’t seen for years, to prove to himself that the moment is real. Then he pressed a series of buttons. The belt lit up, a strange sequence, a rhythm of light playing on its surface. It was calling out, across the city, across the state, across the world perhaps, or to some distant planet beyond the stars. It was calling out, the way it had to him, so long ago.
He lay back then, and told the shadow he was ready. He closed his eyes and breathed easy for the first time in a long time. And just for a moment he was at the house on the lake at sunset. The geese were calling out, making plans for their long flight south, and he was walking on a dirt road to nowhere, wondering if his life would ever have any direction, never dreaming of the incredible adventures that awaited him. And he was riding his bike down a steep hill in the summer sun, and running through the shadows of trees on a stormy night. He was kissing a girl for the first time, in the half light, her eyes all smoky, her dark hair clinging to her sweat moistened neck. He was everywhere, and nowhere at once, and the lights were dimming at the theatre of the greatest show he'd ever seen. He was lying breathless on a bed that was every bed he'd ever slept on, next to every woman he'd ever been with, and the whole world was silent, and all of the lights in all the world went out, and he wondered if this was all there was after life. And even as he thought that thought, it was gone too, leaving only a nothing beyond nothingness behind…
Thursday, September 18, 2008
"It's been a long time," Steve said.
Glasses clinked, silverware clattered on fine china, and the chatter of conversation filled the restaurant.
"It has, hasn't it?" Ray said. The two shook hands. Ray feeling that vague sense of uneasiness he always felt when he shook hands with Steve, knowing that the man could crush his hands to powder with a single flinch. Ray brushed the thought aside. He'd trusted this man with his life more times than he could count.
The two sat across from each other, in a moment of awkward silence, while they waited for drinks to arrive. The best of friends in their true identities, their mild mannered alter egos had actually never gotten along very well. One of the great mysteries of life, like glowing rocks that fall to earth from other planets, or stray bullets that destroy entire families.
"I read your article in the paper," Ray said. "About the meteor. A stone from heaven, I think you called it." It will be visible tonight, in the northern sky you said, right?"
Steve was staring out the window. The restaurant had an amazing view. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"Nothing," Ray said. And the two sat in silence for a time.
"We had some good times, didn't we, in the old days," Steve said when his sirloin steak, and ray’s almond chicken arrived.
"Nothing else like it," Ray said, cutting into his chicken with a knife and fork.
"I went to the old neighborhood today," Steve said.
"How was that?" Ray said, knowing that the neighborhood Steve spoke of was 2,000 miles away from the city.
"Everything's changing so quickly... I feel like a stranger when I go there… Come to think of it, I feel like a stranger everywhere these days.”
"Occupational hazard I guess. Are you still with Sharon?"
Steve shook his head. "She left me. She said she just doesn't feel the same way anymore."
"Is there someone else?" Ray said.
"How should I know?" Steve said.
Ray arched an eyebrow.
"No, there's no one else." Steve said. "...The truth is, I think the stress got to her."
"It is a lot to ask of anyone," Ray said.
"Just another occupational hazard, I guess," Steve said, looking out the window at the stars. "Do you remember being a kid, Ray? No worries, no responsibilities no- oh god Ray I'm sorry."
Ray shook his head, "Don't be. I did have a childhood Steve, and a very happy one. It just ended sooner than I would have liked."
"I just, I had a dream that I was a kid again last night. I was running down a hill, and the grass was so green, and the world was so bright. School was out and you could smell the summer in the air. I had this bright red bicycle that I couldn't wait to get on that hill with and before I could even ride the bicycle... I woke up. And the window was open. The breeze coming through had this chill to it. And it took me a few minutes to fall out of the dream, and realize that I'm a man now, and that another long winter's coming." Steve turned his head, the stars were bright, and there was a patch in the sky with a strange hue. Ray had seen it a few nights ago, actually. But it was smaller.... It was the kind of light that presages a storm, but tonight, as on that night, the sky was cloudless, silent.
"It's not going to pass us by, is it Steve?" Ray said. Speaking as the realization dawned on him. He chose his words carefully, lowering his voice, so as not to incite a riot in the restaurant. "It's headed right for us... isn’t it." he said, and this time it wasn’t a question. "How long have you known?"
"Just since last night. It started with the research for the article. It was supposed to be a nice human interest story. But last night I went out to the observatory to look at it again, there was something I didn’t like about its course. So, on a hunch and went and saw for myself; hundreds of thousands of miles away, but moving incredibly fast. I could see... I could see that it’s coming."
"You're sure. I mean... how can you be-" This time it was Steve's turn to arch an eyebrow. "Right," Ray said.
"I just wanted to say goodbye, Ray. You've always been there, and I can't tell you how much it's meant to me."
"But what about the others," Ray said. "Why only me?"
"Because you're a good friend Ray, and... You have a pragmatic mind. The truth is, you're the only one I really trust Ray, the only one I could trust not to try and stop me from doing what I need to do. This is hard enough without the arguing, and the long goodbyes. I picked you because I needed some of your strength, some of your resolve to do this."
Ray nodded, reaching out and taking Steve's hand. This time the squeeze did hurt a bit, but he grit his teeth, and said nothing. The two men fought over the bill, ridiculous under the circumstances, and left the restaurant in separate vehicles. The last thing Steve said to Ray was, "Tell the others I love them." Ray was quite certain he would never see Steve again.
Screaming through the atmospheric barrier, Steve burst free from the earth's gravitational pull. He had taken a deep breath right before the air got too thin. Most people thought that he didn’t need to breath. It wasn't that he didn't need to breath, he did. But he could hold his breath for days, perhaps weeks, he'd never really bothered to find out how long for sure. Now he was gliding through the frictionless atmosphere of space, towards the hurtling rock, that even to his telescopic vision looked so tiny in the distance. In several days he would make contact.
For three days he hadn’t slept. Or if he had, he was unaware of it. It was easy for the mind to wander, in the timeless, empty, ocean of stars in which he sailed. It was difficult to tell dreams from daydreams, or from reality for that matter. But once, for just a moment he had seen his mother and father pushing him on the swing set. The one his father had built with strong, calloused hands, while the days swept by, sun sailing in the sky, the light of it caught in the gray hairs that still clung to the temples of the man’s otherwise bald head. And it made him ache, the thought of never seeing them again. He’d stood in their doorway for hours the night before he left, unable to breach the threshold, unable to tell them what needed to be said, terrified that the look in their eyes would turn him into a coward, rob him of the courage he needed to go into the cold empty void of space and do what needed to be done. In the end, he managed to cross that threshold, and sternly, tersely give them the report of where he was going and what he had to do. They were remarkably understanding. His mother asked, just once if there was any other way. He shook his head, saying nothing because he could feel the tremble in his chest, that would make his voice waver if he said the words, spoke the thoughts that were rambling through his mind. They each hugged him, and shared a tearful goodbye. They both told him how proud they were of him and said goodbye to him in their own hopeful way. Every word lanced through his nigh impervious, titanium-hard skin and pierced his heart, but he owed them at least this much, he owed them much more but it was too late now to give it to them. With that he’d walked away from the only home he’d ever known, or at least the only one he could remember. And now… now he was sailing through emptiness, towards oblivion.
On the fourth day it seemed that he slept, perhaps for all of the day, and dreamed of that same red bike and that same green hill and he couldn’t for the life of him remember if he’d ever owned a bike, or if there was a hill near his house. And what was the sound of that dog barking in the distance, was it his dog, or someone else’s or a memory, or a dream or a dream of a memory from someone else’s childhood, like the children on the shows that he’d watched on TV when he was growing up. He shook his head, mind addled, for a moment. He could not at all remember what he was doing or why, and then he remembered, and it was like the first time he realized what he had to do, all over again, and some part of him wanted to cry. But he was too far away from himself to touch his true feelings. Watching himself, drift through the void from a thousand miles away. And more than that, he had a job to do, there would be time enough for tears and whatever else may come after…
He awoke drifting and angry. He was angry that he hadn’t come upon the damn rock yet, and angry that it had to be him to do this task, because no one else was strong enough. He was angry that he’d so rarely known a woman’s embrace, because there were perhaps two women on earth that he could hold in his arms without fear of crushing them. One of them was a sociopath he’d done battle with many times, and the other was a fellow hero, and sometimes teammate who from time to time would accept him into her bed and into her loveless mechanical embrace. The two had nothing in common, except for the all encompassing limitations that come with almost limitless power they both posessed. They had worked out a routine by the third time that allowed them both to do what they needed to do as quickly as possible then go back to saving the world. But there was an emptiness to it that made him long for real lust, and true love. That made him angry, and so did everything about the emptiness around him, the rock, the earth filled with people who seemed at times to scarcely notice all he gave to protect them, and worse, sometimes died despite his best efforts.
And then there came over him a great calm. He sailed onwards, towards his inexorable collision with destiny. Perhaps it was the very reason for his creation, the very reason for his arrival on earth, but it didn’t matter. It was the path he had chosen and soon he would know the result of that choice. And the calm stayed with him, it carried him and he felt that he had overcome the trials of the journey. He felt that it was all downhill from here.
And then the great stone grew, and grew, and grew. And he was near enough to it that the illusion of acceleration grew greater and greater and was almost beyond the abilities of his dulled senses to process and the stone loomed larger in his vision by the second, grew nearer and nearer, and for the first time in all the years of his life since the most nascent days of his childhood, Steve’s eyes grew wide with a strange mixture of fear and wonder.
When he finally collided with the stone behemoth, it was almost a relief. The size of the meteor was incredible. It could not be shattered, and would not be moved. Steve redoubled his efforts and felt the thrust of his flight, surging against the meteor's terrible weight and impetus. Steve, the man, was caught between the crush of these two mickle forces. He grit his teeth and pressed harder, dug deeper. Then he felt something deep inside of him crack, and the stone bore down on him. In the silence of space he cried out to his mother. Not his earth mother, as he would have expected, but his real mother, whose gentle hands he suddenly remembered. Gasping for air in the void which had none to offer, he fell back from the great stone behemoth, praying to whatever god would listen, that he'd managed enough of an impact to knock the meteor off its course.
He should have died in that heroic moment, but he didn't. He drifted back towards the earth whose people had no knowledge of his great sacrifice. He drifted, half alive towards the blue sphere until gravity took hold and he fell burning to the earth. His almost unbreakable body crashed to earth, sending shockwaves through the city which the nightly news would equate to 5.7 on the richter scale earthquake. His prone, barely breathing form, was discovered in the chaos that ensued, and he was loaded into an ambulance by fourteen men. The ambulance rushed him to the Hurst hospital, the back of the vehicle sagging beneath his weight.
In a dreamlike state, he opened his eyes and saw the doctor that stood before him apologetically, and informed him he was going to die. He rattled off a series of injuries which Steve had sustained, none of which meant anything to him. The doctor explained, that surgery was the only way to save him, and that there was no blade in the hospital sharp, or strong enough to cut him open, and that even if there was, there was no replacement part that they could put in him strong enough to withstand the rigors of his own muscular contractions.
And that was how he passed from this world, a victim of his own uniqueness, and completely alone.
Friends and family arrived at the hospital as quickly as they heard, but by that time he was gone. Even the fastest man on earth, the blue bolt was not there to say goodbye, in fact, no one had seen him for days.
The world mourned the passing of its greatest hero. And the meteor sailed harmlessly by.
And once in a while, someone would wonder aloud at the local newspaper, whatever happened to Steven Taylor, the quiet reporter who used to write freelance for the paper in his spare time? Most people thought about it for a while, taking their time before remembering the man’s face, and then they would say, “wow, you know, come to think of it, I haven’t heard from him for years.”
Raymond Wright, also known as the gray owl, never went to the hospital, nor visited the hero’s gravesite. In fact shortly after the death of the world’s mightiest man, he retired as a masked crimefighter and was never heard from again. Few if any noted the timing, nor believed there was any correlation. The two’s relationship was often described by outsiders to be one of professional courtesy at best.
Surprisingly crime did not run as rampant in the years that followed as many feared it would. The remaining heroes banded together to pick up the slack, and life carried on. Those that knew the world’s greatest hero best shook their heads at the bitter irony. The hero, the man, had always wondered if what he did really made a difference, he’d always hoped that everything he sacrificed for his city, his country and his planet, had made the world a better place.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
He ran across a street weaving in and out of traffic, and over a bridge high above the sparkling that water he could have run across just as easily. It was a beautiful day in the small town of
The cancer was malignant, inoperable, and terminal. He'd received the news almost a year ago, and he'd been running ever since. But he had felt it these past days in his bones, undermining their structure, in his stomach, gnawing away at his guts. He woke up one morning, nauseaous and frustrated, angry and depressed. He didn't think that he was going to see another tomorrow, and so he did what he had always done, he did what came naturally, he ran. And this time he didn't stop running. He knew what was waiting for him. He knew what was coming when he finally slowed down. He had read it in the headlines of tomorrow's paper, yesterday. The world's fastest man, runs out of time.
The shadows of the monkey bars were long and dark, and all the children had long since gone home. He circled that park like a cyclone. He could see a dark haired child, spinning, laughing giddily on the tire swing. The child was him, forty-seven years ago. At this speed, imagination and memory were clearer than the world around him, and the edges of time blurred.
He ran harder, faster, and the boy began to multiply. He was here, now, on the tire swing, and over there on the monkey bars two days later, and there sitting on the hill looking up at the clouds three days after that. Faster and faster he went. Bones several times denser than those of the average human began to strain under the torque of churning legs; generating a force that would have splintered the thigh bones, shattered the femurs and exploded the knees of an ordinary man.
His vision blurred, the sky screamed, and a multitude of dark haired children burst onto the Scene, each one a little bigger, a little older than the last until they were spread all over the playground like one continuous multi-segmented worm; a rapid succession of little hims, one for every moment of his childhood that he’d spent at that park, until their was a great gap and then the dark haired child returned a twenty-seven year old man, crying on the swings, because his best friend had died, his wife had left him, and he knew that he would never be fully human again.
So he sped up again, tears streaming, and the horizon caught fire, and he could feel the earth turning, feel an unsettling creaking in his joints, his entire body shaking, and vibrating like the cabin of a jet plane flying through a summer storm. But there was no turning back now. He burst out of the park, and streaked to the coast. He needed the ocean, he needed the widest expanse of space he could find. Faster and faster he burst onto the surface of the ocean, faster and faster, and he could see a light. A strange seam in the sky which was brighter than anything he had ever seen before. And his body felt heavy and clumsy, a boat anchor, that was holding him back. His legs were heavy, hinged, machines, outdated contrivances. Faster, and faster, and the crack in the sky grew and grew and other tiny cracks began to appear, and he realized that somewhere along the way he had burned through his costume, and he was tingling, burning through his body as well. He suppressed an almost overwhelming urge to stop running. At this speed, the strain of stopping alone might kill him, and even if it didn't, there was the other thing. So he pushed on beyond his body’s limits, beyond the limits of his body. And the cracks blew open, there was a bolt of lightning and a sonic boom the likes of which the world has never heard, and he burst into flame, or rather into a fiery luminescence. He was warm, and bright, unsheathed from his mortal coil in a place beyond time and space. He was running still, but suddenly gravity’s polarity had been reversed and the effort was required to stay down, rather than up. He was… flying. Gravity had no hold on him, cancer, fear, nothing could hold him anymore. He was a being of pure energy, laughing and streaking all across the globe. He was a being of joy and life running so swiftly that
he was now in a place beyond time. So it was true after all, he thought as his body acclimated to this new sense of weightlessness, this incredible lightness, this unbearably exhilarating freedom. It was true after all, what the paper would say, he had quite literally run out of time.